TJRSports NFL Conference Semifinals (Elite Eight)
John Canton: We are down to the final eight teams in the 2012-13 NFL season as we're into conference semifinals weekend. Personally it's my favorite weekend in all of sports because you've got a double header of playoff football featuring the teams that are arguably the eight best in the league.
Last week's games were predictable considering that Bret, Mike and I all get them right as the favorites won every game. It doesn't always happen like that. This week all the home teams are favored, which is the norm because they're the ones that earned home field based on regular play. Do we believe in them as the four best teams in the NFL that will move on to Championship Sunday next week? Read on to find out.
Final Regular Season Standings Straight Up
John 176-79-1 .690
Bret 169-86-1 .663
Mike 169-86-1 .663
Playoffs Straight Up
All game times are Eastern.
Baltimore (4) at Denver (1) 4:30 PM
Bret: As rumors continued to build of a sub-zero bilzzard game in Denver this weekend, I definitely felt a significant rise in stress level as a Broncos fan. The Ravens aren't exactly built as a power running team, but they have probably the best power running piece in the NFL in Vonta Leach, and beyond that have a much more simple - and thus easy to maneuver in inclement weather - offense. Forecasts have steadily improved since Tuesday though and it's not looking like clear skies with temperatures around 30. That'll do.
Much like the last time I picked for the Broncos/Ravens game, I'm leery. The Broncos have typically done poorly against the Ravens - especially in the playoffs. Yet, I continue to make my picks based on stats - and the stats simply show Denver to be the more dominating team on both sides of the ball.
Baltimore ranks 19th in passing yards given up per game, and only 15th in sacks per game. They're also 19th in interceptions, so they aren't a defense that gives up yards in an attempt to take chances. Worst of all for the Baltimore defense, they better in the passing game than the rushing game. (21st in yards per game) The defense certainly had a nice game against Indianapolis, but I discount that as playing an average team with a rookie QB on the road in the playoffs. It's not enough to override an entire season worth of stats.
When Denver has the ball, I expect the results to be very similar to the last time these two teams played.
When heading in the other direction, however, I don't think Baltimore's fail will be quite so epic. Going in at halftime, Baltimore had exactly 3 first downs, and the only drive that led to points in the half was a 100 yard pick-six by Chris Harris. I mean, they really can't be that bad again can they? I still have yet to see anything out of Ray Rice to show me he has any gas in his tank this year (I wonder if he'll have a 'surprise' surgery on a foot/ankle/knee after the Ravens are finished?), and I really don't think Anquan Boldin to be able to do to Chris Harris and Tony Carter what he did to the Indianapolis secondary.
They'll put something together - maybe they don't throw the pick 6 and keep it close at half-time, but I really don't any statistical reason for Baltimore's offense (13th in yards per game) to beat Denver's defense (2nd in yards per game.) Denver 28 Baltimore 17 (But beware a change in weather.)
Mike: I don't think there needs to be a whole lot said about this game. Denver is better in almost every aspect of the game than Baltimore, they've had the better season, finished the season better, are playing at home, with the better quarterback, and the better defense. I don't feel like anything that happened in last week's Ravens/Colts game was surprising. Joe Flacco had a pretty solid game, and the Ravens run game was really dominant, with two Ray Rice fumbles being the only reason this wasn't even more of a blow out. But that doesn't all of a sudden make me a believer in the Ravens, because the Colts' defense was terrible to begin with! Baltimore was supposed to do these things.
Now they're going up against the #2 team in overall DVOA, second in offense and fifth in defense, and they are going to have a much harder time moving the ball. Denver's defensive line is not going to give up those kind of yards to Ray Rice and certainly not to Bernard Pierce. Denver's secondary is not going to let Anquan Boldin go off for 150 yards again. And Denver's offense is not going to spend the whole game settling for field goals instead of touchdowns, which is just going to put more pressure on Joe Flacco to keep up the scoring. While it's not impossible to envision the Ravens winning this game, I would be very, very shocked if it happened. Denver 34 Baltimore 13
John: I don't think this is going to be a close game. I know there's a lot of talk about Peyton Manning having arguably the best team he's ever had, but I think of another Hall of Fame Bronco in Champ Bailey, who is still an elite cornerback with 12 Pro Bowl berths in his career. He's never won a ring. Manning gets a lot of credit for the offense being explosive as he should, but when I think about that Denver defense they are doing an incredible job as well. Their defense is 3rd against the run and 3rd against the pass, so they're going to be very difficult to beat. The most points they've given up in a game during their 11 game win streak was 24 and all of those wins were by margins of seven or more points. In other words, because of the defense holding their ground they are having a lot of comfortable wins.
I really don't like the Ravens a lot on the road. The main reason is the inconsistent play of Joe Flacco, who has just 7 TD passes in road games compared to 15 TD passes at home in the regular season (plus two last week). That's a significant difference to me because it says that he has a comfort level at home that doesn't translate when he's out of Baltimore. What happens when you lose your comfort level? You turn the ball over. I think a team like the Broncos with an excellent pass rush led by Von Miller and Elvis Dumervill and a strong secondary anchored by the aforementioned Champ Bailey, Flacco is going to have a bad game. Those deep balls he was throwing to Anquan Boldin against the Colts last week are unlikely to be successful against a much more consistent Broncos team. He'll probably throw an interception or two. If it happens early it's game over.
When these teams played in week 15 the Broncos opened up a 17-0 lead by halftime and then cruised to a 34-17 victory. It was not a close game at any point. Even though the Ravens defense is healthier than it has been all season I don't see them slowing down the Broncos offense to win this game. The key for the Ravens offense will be to establish Ray Rice and the ground game early, but part of the reason they struggled at the end of the year was because they failed to do that on a consistent basis. I don't think that's going to change this week.
The biggest reason I love the Broncos is Peyton Manning. He's coming off four neck surgeries, he missed an entire season and he's playing so well this year that you wouldn't know he was a guy in his late 30s that only has a couple of years left. His focus is incredible. As the leader of this team you know he's going to help his younger teammates motivated and I don't see them letting up in this game at all. I think it will be a comfortable victory where the Broncos cover the 9.5 point spread and then some. Broncos 37-20
Green Bay (3) at San Francisco (2) 8:00 PM
Bret: This is the toughest game of the weekend for me to call - and I think anyone trying to predict how it will turn out without knowing the fate of Justin Smith is at a serious disadvantage. I think Green Bay is the more talented team overall, but Justin Smith and Aldon Smith could totally disrupt the entire Green Bay offense. My guess is he plays, but doesn't play entirely effectively and the result is a slightly below average game from the two players.
That extra time, I think, is enough to give Rodgers the space he needs to run his offense at the highest level. We've certainly seen the San Francisco defense be exposed against the best passing games in the league (2nd half of the New England game) and they are actually only 12th in the league in completion percentage against.
DuJuan Harris has also been a nice - probably short term - breath of fresh air, but the threat of a run game at least should slow down some of the 49ers more reckless blitzes, buying Rodgers even more time. For Green Bay, I think that's all that running game really needs to do.
Long story short, when Green Bay has the ball, San Francisco needs the Smith's playing at their best or it's going to be a long day.
San Francisco should be able to execute their offensive game plan as well however, Green Bay has been downright bad against the rush this year - ranking 28th in the NFL. Green Bay is average in most pass defense statistics - San Francisco is pretty average passing, and I think have been hurt by the loss of Manningham - as they really don't have a solid second receiver since he went down (and Vernon Davis died or something). San Francisco will be limited in what they do offensively in this game. It'll be roll-out, short pass, pistol type stuff. I don't see it being especially successful.
This entire game comes down to the San Francisco pass rush though. And I just don't think a gimpy Justin Smith will be able to do enough. Green Bay 27 San Francisco 24
Mike: This game has been killing me all week. First off, I've been terrified of this game for the last month, because the way the playoff picture was shaping up it seemed inevitable that Green Bay and San Francisco would end up playing each other, and I certainly remember how the game went in Week 1. Second, trying to look at this game from a logical point of view, I've gone back and forth so many times on what I think is going to end up happening. After much thought, these are the key points for me:
-Frank Gore is not running at anywhere near the pace he was running at in the beginning of the season. I'd like to thank Grantland's Bill Barnwell for getting me to look into this a little more. The last five weeks of the season Gore has had 23 carries for 58 yards against the Rams, 12 carries for 63 yards against the Dolphins, 21 carries for 83 yards against the Patriots, 6 carries for 28 yards against the Seahawks, and 20 carries for 68 yards against the Cardinals. While these numbers are coming against teams with good defenses, their run defense efficiency numbers aren't significantly better than what the Packers have to offer. San Francisco was able to dominate the Packers on the ground last time, rushing 32 total times for 186 yards (5.8 ypc). Frank Gore's season (and the lack of Kendall Hunter) would indicate that we're set for a different story in the run game this time around.
-How effective will Justin Smith be? I know he's been practicing, and I know he will be in the game, and his presence alone is a big help for the Niners' defensive line, but at the same time, how much will his torn triceps limit his ability to effectively bring pressure and draw attention away from Aldon Smith? Left tackle Marshall Newhouse and left guard TJ Lang are in a much better position to protect Rodgers if Smith isn't totally there, and Rodgers' sack numbers have looked much better as the season has gone on.
There are also some other questions going into the game, how will DuJuan Harris look after last week again looking like the most effective back the Packers have had all season? Is Colin Kaepernick up to the challenge of playing in a big playoff game? With the loss of Kendall Hunter and Mario Manningham does San Francisco have enough weapons on offense? Which team's kicking game is actually going to come through? So many variables in this game, such a hard game to predict. As the week's gone on, I've talked myself into taking the Packers, although I was tempted to take the Niners to hedge my emotional life with my betting life. I think Green Bay's defense will really shine in this game and give the offense enough opportunities to win this game. Green Bay 24 San Francisco 20
John: The Packers were my preseason Super Bowl pick, so I will go with them. But do I feel that confident in them? Absolutely not. I will stick with that pick although I think the 49ers are very difficult to beat in San Fran. I think the key thing for the Packers is their defense is as healthy as it has been all year while the wide receiver also has four fresh bodies that they can throw out there as the most talented WR group in the NFL. The Niners pass defense is one of the best in the game, but can they shut down all four guys for four quarters, plus an improved Jermichael Finley? It may be tough to do. You know they've watched the tape of when the Patriots scored 34 on the 49ers in week 15 and the Packers know they have the kind of offense to do that same kind of damage.
When I watch the Niners I'm impressed by their defense so much. They have stars all over the place. What they need to do is get pressure on Aaron Rodgers and make things uncomfortable in the pocket for him. If you give him time he's going to destroy you even when you have a great secondary. Like I said that Packers offense is deep at WR and they're doing a better job of running the ball with DuJuan Harris. It will be up to OLB Aldon Smith and that Niners pass rush to get after Rodgers. If they can get four or five sacks plus a dozen hurries they have a shot at creating turnovers that could lead to a victory.
The reason I'm going with the Packers is because their defense has come alive thanks to the return of safety Charles Woodson. When he's out there he makes things tough on opposing QBs. His absence due to his collarbone injury has allowed the Packers younger DBs to get experience and now they're playing with a lot more confidence. If you look at their performances (aside from the loss to the Vikings in week 17) they've improved a lot as the season has gone on.
That brings me to the Niners offense. I think they need a big game from RB Frank Gore because as I'll mention a few times this week the key to stopping a high octane offense is by keeping the ball for as long as you can. A run game does that. The problem with Gore having that big game is he hasn't had a 100 yard rushing game since October 18 (week 7). I know the Niners rank 4th in rushing at 155.7 yards per game, but I think they're going to need their workhorse to be just that. Maybe they were resting him all year for a game like this. We'll see if that's true. The other question is will somebody other than Michael Crabtree step up as a target for Colin Kaepernick? I think sometimes Kaepernick keys on Crabtree too much and if the Packers can pick up on that they could get an interception or two.
Ultimately I like the team with the MVP caliber QB Aaron Rodgers over the team with a young QB in Colin Kaepernick who could get rattled a bit in his first playoff start. It's one things to win games in the regular season. It's another thing to do it in the playoffs. I think the Packers are very hungry this season after last year's 15-1 record and a loss in their first playoff game. They're not going to let their guard down again this year. It's a QB league. Rodgers is playing this game in the state he grew up and against the team that chose to pick Alex Smith (now the Niners backup) instead of him. You don't think he's motivated? He's as motivated as anybody playing this week.
I like the Packers because I believe in Rodgers so much. He'll carry his team to victory. That's what superstars do. I also think there will be more points than most people expect. This will be the game of the week. Packers 31-27
Seattle (5) at Atlanta (1) 1:00 PM
Bret: This is definitely the game I feel like I understand the least. I really never have figured out what it is that makes Atlanta so good. And in this game the few things that do make them elite (at least offensively) play right into Seattle's strengths. Browner and Sherman are the best pair of corner backs in the league - and probably the only pair that can match up with Julio Jones and Roddy White, and their safety's definitely have the ability to keep Gonzalez in check. So I think when Atlanta's offense is on the field it will come down Atlanta's offensive line to A) make something happen with their mediocre running game and B) give Ryan and his receivers enough time to get separation. The interesting thing is how different the Seattle defensive line and Atlanta offensive lines are. Atlanta's offensive line is big but slow. Seattle's front 4 are small but fast. For me, even without Clemens, I'll take the speed in that match up. I really think Atlanta has a tough time scoring more than 21 in this game.
So the question is 'Can Russell Wilson go into a hostile dome and score 22 points". Much like 'Will Justin Smith be healthy?" the answer is "I'm not sure, but I know it'll decide the game." I think that's going to be tricky as well. The best thing the Atlanta defense has going for it is Mike Nolan's ability to create and disguise innovative schemes that even the best QB's in the league struggle to decipher. (Here's looking at you Peyton and Brees!)
On the other hand, the Atlanta defense had poor weeks against both RGIII and Cam Newton's version of the read option attack, so Seattle may find their success in keeping it simple stupid and running the read option/play action/deep threat game to keep Wilson from having to make those hard decisions.
I also think Marshawn Lynch should have a nice game here against a defense that struggles against power backs as well.
I see this game as a low scoring slugfest, and I don't know if there's a team in the NFL I'd pick over Seattle in that kind of game. Seattle 24 Atlanta 21
Mike: Both NFC games are really hard to call. Seattle came out and took care of business last week, although I still can't help but wonder what a healthy RG III does for a full 60 minutes. I know that you have to play the hand you're dealt, but that thought just carries over to this week's Atlanta matchup. Seattle came out a little slow on both sides of the ball and went down quickly 14-0. They should have better luck against what is truly a bad Falcons' rushing offense, but with Matt Ryan throwing to Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, it's not a team you want to get too far down to.
I think what will happen is both teams will struggle to move the ball early on, settling for field goals. Seattle shouldn't be able to move the ball at will quite like they did last week, which was partially a product of Washington's defense not being very good, and partially a product of Washington's defense spending the whole game on the field after their offense averaged 4.25 plays per drive the last 8 drives of the game after averaging 10 plays their first two drives. Marshawn Lynch will get his, and I think the key for the Falcons will be to limit Russell Wilson's rushes. If he has another 8 rush, 67 yard performance I think the Seahawks have a very good chance of winning the game.
However, ultimately, like the Packers/Seahawks game, the deciding factor for me in this game is the injury to Chris Clemons. One of the biggest reasons Seattle has success on the defensive front is because they can effectively rush the passer with their four down linemen without needing to always bring pressure. While Clemons is only one part of that attack, he is the most significant part of it, and in a close game like this, even the loss of one of those linemen could give Atlanta enough of an edge in the passing game to find success. I'm taking Altanta in a very close game. Atlanta 20 Seattle 17
John: I'm going Falcons. It's not an easy game to predict. I can see it going both ways and I'm honestly too scared to bet on anything in this game because it's just tough for me to believe in something one way or another. I do have some reasons to justify my selection, of course.
The reason I like Atlanta is because of their elite pair of WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White plus their Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez. I know the Seahawks defense is very good especially against the pass. However, that Falcons offense is very difficult to stop especially at home. What will be key for them is also involving their third down RB Jacquizz Rodgers into the offense more. He's arguably the fastest guy on the Falcons that can be a game changer. They should play him more than Michael Turner and use him as a receiving threat out of the backfield. I think sometimes the Seahawks defense is so aggressive that they tend to over pursue, so that could lead to Rodgers ripping off some big plays in the screen game. They should use Turner to grind out some yards, but if they want to win they need to use Rodgers more as a way to catch the Seahawks off guard.
It's funny because there's all this talk about Ray Lewis retiring and I understand him getting a lot of press, but what about Tony Gonzalez? He said this is his last year. He's never made a Super Bowl. He's playing for a Falcons team that needs to win this game and next week's game at home to get there. Everybody in that locker room is going to go all out to win this for Gonzalez. I know he's not going to get as much attention because he's not an in your face talker, but he is the best Tight End to ever play the game. Most people, myself included, think he shouldn't retire because he's still a very effective player. Maybe he'll play again, but for now we have to assume this is his last year. I think the Gonzalez factor will be big for them. Matt Ryan will look for him a lot in this game as he should. They need to test the young Seahawks linebackers to see if they can properly keep Gonzalez from carving them up in the middle of the field.
I think the Seahawks offense will have some success in this game because they run a system similar to the Panthers, who had monster offensive games against the Falcons including a 30-20 Panthers win in week 14. It's a tough offense to stop because you never know if Marshawn Lynch is going to run it or of Russell Wilson will keep it for that read option play. I know Lynch missed a couple of days of practice this week, but I don't think it matters. They know what they're doing. They want to rest him to make sure he's fresh because they know if they are going to win they need Lynch to have a 120+ yard rushing game in order to open up the field for some Russell Wilson passes down the field.
Like I said in the beginning, it's a tough game to call. I just like the Falcons more because they've been fighting all year for home field advantage and they've heard all the whispers about how they can't get wins in the playoffs. This is their best shot. It's up to Matt Ryan to make big plays for that offense. The Seahawks are a physical defense that likes to gamble, so as long as you take your shot at the right time you can move the ball against them. Limit the turnovers and you can get the job done. Give me the Falcons to win a physical game thanks to a field goal late. Falcons 24-23
Houston (3) at New England (2) 4:30 PM
Bret: Much like Ray Rice, I think we may find out about Matt Schuab's broken ribs the Monday after his final game - he just hasn't looked right, and some of his passes last week clearly lacked power - which is a sure sign of a secret injury.
'The book' on how to beat the Patriots is to control the ball and keep it out of their offense's hands - but that hasn't been the recipe for success at all this year - in fact, no team that's beaten the Patriots has won time of possession or had a particularly glorious day rushing the ball. Shockingly, the only thing New England's 4 losses have proven is that they are the only games this season in which New England ran for less than 100 yards.
Does this mean the key to beating the Patriots is stuffing their running game? Or does it mean the Patriots machine is based on a more complete offensive attack than we might think, and when they can't establish their run, they can't succeed? I'm honestly not sure, but I think Wade Phillips will be any more sure either. It seems to me that - for the most part - the New England offense beats itself when it does lose.
Which is a long winded way of saying, the outcome of this game depends on the Patriots offense messing up. At home. In the playoffs. I really don't see them doing that. I don't think Houston will make things particularly difficult for them either. Last week their middle linebackers had trouble covering Gresham up the middle - he just couldn't make a play to save his life. I don't think Hernandez or Gronkowski will have that problem. I look for the tight ends and Woodhead to have a big game and New England to be successful - as always - in putting up 30.
With that much offense coming from the other way, I don't see how a wounded Houston passing game or a 40 rush game by Arian Foster can keep up. New England 31 Houston 21
Mike: The other AFC game probably won't be too close either. Despite outgaining Cincinnati 420-198 and holding the ball for 39 minutes to Cincy's 21, Houston won by only six points and Andy Dalton was a yard too far on hitting AJ Green with a go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Arian Foster looked fine, rushing for 140 yards at 4.4ypc, but Matt Schaub looked very uninteresting, finishing the day going 29-38 for 262 yards no touchdowns and an interception. He should have had an easy touchdown to Andre Johnson but simply missed the throw. Yes, the defense shut down the Bengals passing attack, but their secondary is built such that Jonathan Joseph can be effective against a team's #1 receiver, but they struggle everywhere else. Well, the Bengals only have one receiver, so that works out well for them. Not sure that's going to fly as well against the Patriots, who have Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to throw to.
If Houston is somehow able to effectively pressure Tom Brady via JJ Watt and the rest of the line, and if they are able to make New England really work for their yards, they've got a chance. Even with Aqib Talib on the team, New England's secondary is susceptible to giving up yards, but it's not like Houston is really going to punish them for that. They're going to have to grind out points, which means they need to slow down Brady on the other side. If at any point New England gets up by double digits the game is probably over, so the Texans have to hope that they can find a way to hurry Brady, knock him off his game, maybe force a turnover or two. I'm not sure Houston quite has the personnel on defense to pull it off, but there is a lot of talent there, so it's certainly possible. I'm picking New England to win but not quite cover, but a blowout wouldn't really be too surprising either. New England 24 Houston 17
John: There's no team better equipped at beating the Houston Texans than the New England Patriots. If you saw their 42-14 win over the Texans in week 14 then you know the formula is pretty simple: Spread the field, run the no huddle offense and use all of the weapons you have at your disposal. There's no better quarterback at spreading the ball around the field than Tom Brady. Do you remember how that game started? Brady threw 4 TD passes by the early part of the third quarter before the Texans could even put a point on the board. What's amazing about that is the Patriots didn't even Brady's favorite weapon TE Rob Gronkowski, who was still dealing with his arm injury. Not only do the Texans have to deal with Ridley and Woodhead out of the backfield, but they also have to find a way to slow down Brady chucking the ball around the field to Welker, Lloyd, Gronkowski and Hernandez among others. They have to do this while also trying to get pressure on Brady. Guess what? All of that is extremely hard to do! I don't like the Texans chances.
The Texans offense is very good, but not as great as their stats showed early in the year. I think teams figured them out. As I've said many times this year they need more receivers than Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, who can have some good games once in a while. When you see some of these other teams that made it deep in the playoffs they tend to go four wide a lot (or three wide with a TE - sometimes two TEs) and use a variety of weapons. The Texans don't have that variety. They will need Arian Foster to have a 150 yard game running the ball because it will keep the Patriots offense off the field and it will give the Texans a chance to have that balanced attack. I don't think they'll have that much success running, though. The Patriots will stack the box, double Johnson as much as they can and force Schaub to beat them. I doubt that's going to happen.
The Patriots have been on a collision course with the Broncos all season long. To get there, both of them need to win this week. I think that happens and not only that, but both teams will in convincing fashion. This year's Patriots team is better than last year's Super Bowl losing team because their run game is much more consistent. They will be tough to beat this season. Give me Tom Brady and the Patriots to win at home with another impressive offensive performance. They won't just win this game. They will send a message. Patriots 41-24
To sum it up, we all like the Broncos and Patriots in the AFC. In the NFC we all like the Packers while Bret is the only one that likes the Seahawks. I think we can all agree the NFC games will be much closer than the AFC games, which we feel will be solid wins for the home teams.
The Degenerates Dungeon
This is where we give you some picks for our best bets of the week. Note that lines moves from the time we write this (Friday AM) to the time the games kickoff. We keep track of the odds and we'll use that to write down our records too.
Regular Season Records
Bret missed last week.
For the playoffs we've decided to give our three best bets.
1. Seattle/Atlanta under 46
2. Green Bay +3 (-120)
3. Denver Broncos 1st half -4.5 (-140)
(Also, I think you could tease ANY 4 teams together in a 7 point tease and get a winning result. All of these lines are spot on, and I really don't think they'll be off more than a few points.)
Baltimore @ Denver -9.5 - Joe Flacco coming off a good week seems like the perfect opportunity to bet against him.
Seattle @ Atlanta Under 44.5 - Unless there is some serious touchdown action on defense/special teams, this just feels like a game that could be dominated by field goals.
Houston @ New England Under 47.5 - Taking the over here seems too obvious, which is always sound advice you should use when making bets on football games.
Baltimore @ Denver -9.5 - I bet this as soon as I saw the line last week.
Houston @ New England -9.5 - Same as above.
Green Bay @ San Francisco OVER 44.5 - Gut feeling. Think they will both put a lot of points up.
That's all from us for this week. Follow us on Twitter:
You can also email John Canton at email@example.com with any questions or comments.